It must be said, I am an unabashed Adam Lindsay Gordon fan. Stories of his horsemanship got me in the first time I visited Blue Lake around age seven, during the mid-1970s. As a horse girl, the idea of a man and his horse jumping over the edge of the lake was fascinating.
Unlike school children of the first half of the 20th century, Adam Lindsay Gordon’s poetry was not on the curriculum by the 1970s and 80s. Therefore, my introduction to his poetry was the 1946 edition of Poems of Adam Lindsay Gordon found in a second-hand book shop. By then I had heard of his horse racing deeds, his tragic and untimely death, and visited his cottage in the Ballarat Botanical Gardens. How did a dare-devil horseman write such tender words? How could a hardened horse-breaker, find beauty in the death of a steeplechaser in The Last Leap?
“Satin coat that seems to shine
Duller now, black braided tress,
That a softer hand than mine
Far away was wont to twine
That in meadows from this
Softer lips might kiss
All is over! this is death,
And I stand to watch thee die,
Brave old horse! with ‘bated breath
Hardly drawn through tight-clenched teeth
Lid indented deep, but eye
Only dull and dry”
(Extract from The Last Leap, first published: Sea Spray and Smoke Drift, Gordon, Adam Lindsay, Melbourne: George Robertson, 1867.)
During our recent visit to Nelson, we crossed the border into South Australia to visit nearby Port McDonnell. Just out of the town is Dingley Dell Conservation Park, site of Dingley Dell Cottage, once a holiday home of Adam Lindsay Gordon. On the day, the temperature was in the low forties and a Total Fire Ban forced the closure of the cottage. That was disappointing as the cottage houses some great ALG memorabilia, but we still could explore the grounds.
Gordon spent a lot of time writing while at Dingley Dell during the years 1864 to 1868. He published his work “The Feud” in the Border Watch in August 1864 and wrote poems such as “The Song of the Surf” inspired by the rugged limestone coast.
In 1912, ALG’s widow, Margaret Park, then Mrs Peter Low, recalled Dingley Dell in an interview published in the Chronicle (Adelaide).
This is the cottage in 1891. It was still owned by the Gordon family at that time.
Again, around 1907.
The day we left Nelson, we continued on the ALG trail to Mt Gambier’s Blue Lake, site of Gordon’s legendary leap. Set in a volcanic crater, Blue Lake itself is full of mystery and on the day the water was eddying and swirling. Add the tale of Adam Lindsay Gordon and it was almost haunting.
During Gordon’s life, and the early years after his death in 1870, despite having some published works, his poetry largely went unrecognised. It was publications after his death that, by the late 1870s, saw him gain critical acclaim in Australia and overseas and his star began to rise.
Searching newspaper articles from his life and beyond, it was the mid-1880s that the legend of Gordon really took off.
Try as I might, including searching the Border Watch every year from 1861 until 1885, I could not find any articles from during his lifetime about the “famous leap”. Obviously, there are limited editions of the paper, particularly through the 1860s. For example, the 30 August 1864 edition in which Gordon’s “The Feud” was published is not available.
It was 1881 before I could find any reference at all and it was written as though the leap was common knowledge. Surely I could have found some mention over a 20 year period, even in with limited editions. Even obituaries at the time of his death did not mention “Gordon’s Leap”. The 31 December 1881 issue of the Northern Argus (Clare, S.A.) included the article Notes of a Holiday to the South East described Gordon’s feat at Blue Lake.
A Letter to the Editor in the Border Watch of 28 August 1886, was the next reference I found, proposed the erection of a monument to Gordon. From that time on there was rarely an article written about Adam Lindsay Gordon that didn’t mention his leap.
This touching letter from H.W. Varley of Adelaide came with “a couple of guineas” enclosed.
Despite a number of men present on the day of “the leap”, consensus could not be reached on the exact point Gordon jumped the fence. Nor could they agree to the exact nature of the leap or the horse Gordon was riding, was it Modesty of Red Lancer? Even the exact day is unclear. The Mt Gambier Aquifer Tours website, suggests it was the day after the Border Handicap Steeplechase during the winter of 1864. I found the results of that race in the Border Watch of July 29, 1864. The race was on Wednesday 27 July 1864.
This makes sense as the leap apparently occurred after a bet was placed by Gordon on a “square up” race with the first and second placegetters, Robert Learmonth and William Trainor.
The obelisk was finally placed at a site suggested by William “Billy” Trainor one of Gordon’s closest friends and confidants. It was right that the American Billy, a former circus performer, was at the laying of the foundation stone as was John Riddoch another of Gordon’s confidants. In the last years of Gordon’s life, he corresponded extensively with Riddoch sharing his deepest feelings. The letters were published in 1970 in The Last Letters 1868-1870: Adam Lindsay Gordon to John Riddoch.
The same view toward the monument taken around 1930.
From Mt. Gambier we crossed the border back into Victoria and the Western District. We were soon heading for the “Fields of Coleraine”. Coleraine racecourse was one often frequented by ALG. Part two of the five-part Hippodromania is the verse “The Fields of Coleraine“
On the fields of Col’raine there’ll be labour in vain
Before the Great Western is ended,
The nags will have toil’d, and the silks will be soil’d.
And the rails will require to be mended.
For the gullies are deep, and the uplands are steep.
And mud will of purls be the token,
And the tough stringy-bark, that invites us to lark,
With impunity may not be broken.
(Extract from “The Fields of Coleraine”. Published in Sea Spray and Smoke Drift, 1867)
Unfortunately, keeping with racing parlance, heads were turned for home and there was no stopping at Coleraine (I suppose I had called a rest stop at the Casterton Historical Society, 30 minutes earlier), so I have no photographs of the obelisk in Gordon’s honour beside the Glenelg Highway, east of Coleraine. A little further on is the Coleraine Racecourse and opposite is Mt Koroit homestead, former home of John Kirby, owner of 1911 Melbourne Cup winner The Parisian.
Before Gordons’s death, he spent time in Ballarat and that is where my ALG trail ended but where it will resume at another time. However, it was during his time in Ballarat that Gordon suffered his greatest loss, the death of his 11-month-old daughter Annie.
He plunged into deep sorrow and moved to Melbourne where he wrote his last poems, his melancholy evident. Alice’s death, a bad race fall, and ongoing financial difficulties saw him sink to his lowest ebb. He eventually took his own life on Brighton Beach on 24 June 1870, at the age of thirty-six.
When Adam Lindsay Gordon died, little was written about him, save for coroner’s findings and the standard obituaries, but this moving piece, from the Australian Town and Country Journal months after his death, by the “Wandering Bohemiem”, a literary writer, brings to light a man many of his Western District contemporaries never saw, and a side only those of the “supreme brotherhood” would truly understand. The extract of verse, taken from “A Song of Autumn” published in 1870, was apparently the last he wrote. Clearly written with his dear Annie in his heart it shows the depths he had sunken to.
And Eastward by Nor’ward
Looms sadly my track,
And I must ride forward,
And still I look back,—
Look back — Ah, how vainly!
For while I see plainly,
My hands on the reins lie
Uncertain and slack.
The warm wind breathes strong breath,
The dust dims mine eye,
And I draw one long breath,
And stifle one sigh.
Green slopes softly shaded,
Have flitted and faded —
My dreams flit as they did —
Good-night!— and — Good-bye!
(Extract from “A Basket of Flowers”, Bush Ballads and Galloping Rhymes, Bush ballads and galloping rhymes / by the author of “Ashtaroth”. [A.L. Gordon]. Melbourne: Clarson, Massina, and Co., General Printers, 1870.